NFL safeties are the the last line of defense, enforcers who deliver punishment, force turnovers, and are charged with preventing the big play. At defensive back, every snap is a do or die scenario, where the safety man can either jump what appears to be a swing pass out in the flat for a loss, or get burnt deep on a wheel route for a 65-yard touch down.
The all time greats trusted their instincts to wreak havoc, trash opposing game plans, and put offensive coordinators out of work. In run support, elite safeties would chomp at the bit to go eight in the box, take on pulling guards, and destroy the ball carrier at the point of attack. These run stoppers didn’t mind getting down and dirty, and would often crash into the pile to deliver a timely forearm shiver, just before the whistle blew. In pass coverage, the greats patrolled the defensive backfield as center fielders that could either take an interception back to the house, or lay the smack down upon lightweight wide receivers. The greatest NFL safeties of all time always made their presences felt out on the gridiron.
10. Yale Lary
In Detroit, Yale Lary anchored the greatest NFL secondary of all time. The 1960s Detroit Lions’ defensive backfield featured Lary alongside fellow Hall of Famers Dick “Night Train” Lane and Dick LeBeau. In coverage, Lary was a force, as he snagged 50 interceptions during his 13-year career. Interestingly, Lary was also a skilled special teams player, who returned kicks and will also go down as one of the game’s greatest punters. Lary actually led the League in punting on three separate occasions — in 1959, 1961, and 1963. In 1963, Lary boomed kicks for a 49-yard per punt average. As a Detroit Lions’ stalwart, Yale Lary was to appear in nine Pro Bowls — between 1953 and 1964.
9. Willie Wood
At free safety, Willie Wood was the last line of defense behind the likes of fellow Hall of Famers Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, and Henry Jordan on the Frozen Tundra. As a leader of this defensive unit, Wood was to win five NFL championships between 1961 and 1967. In terms of Green Bay mystique, Wood is best remembered for his Super Bowl I 50-yard interception run back against the Kansas City Chiefs. Wood’s pick changed the game and converted a 14-10 nip and tuck battle into a 35-10 Green Bay rout over the AFL Chiefs. Wood hung up his cleats in 1971, after hauling in 48 interceptions and making eight trips to the Pro Bowl.
8. Steve Atwater
Steve Atwater was the greatest run-support safety of all time. Atwater effectively performed as the fifth linebacker, in Denver’s 3-4 defense. As a tackling machine, Atwater compiled more than 120 tackles during his first five NFL seasons. In his 1990 sophomore season, Atwater tallied an all-around 173 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and one sack. As a winner, Atwater captained the 1998 Denver Broncos defense that witnessed a gritty John Elway go helicopter-airborne for first down yardage and a Super Bowl championship.
At a rangy 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds of muscle, Atwater laid the wood in the Mile High City. Atwater simply had no regard for human life and will forever be a staple of devastating hit highlight reels. In pass coverage, vintage Atwater often arrived with the football, before lifting a receiver off his feet and driving him into the ground, as if he were a ragdoll.
7. Emlen Tunnell
Emlen Tunnell was professional football’s original ball-hawk and the self-proclaimed “first black everything.” In 1948, Tunnell broke the color barrier for the New York Giants. From there, Tunnell went on to become the first African American player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1967.
According the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell dropped back as the “strut” in New York’s umbrella defenses. For modern-era fans, Tunnell effectively played the safety role in a dime defense. Nicknamed “offense on defense,” Tunnell retired with a then record 79 interceptions (now 2nd of all-time), for 1,282 return yards and 4 touchdowns, in 14 years with the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. As an all-around athlete, Tunnell also led the NFL in punt return yardage in 1951 and 1952.
6. Larry Wilson
Historically, Larry Wilson labored in relative obscurity for the moribund St. Louis Cardinals [editor’s note: not to be confused with the MLB team of the same name, the St. Louis Cardinals are now based in Arizona] franchise. Wilson was credited for his perfection of the safety blitz, where he would time his approach to the line of scrimmage alongside the snap count and simply tee off upon the opposing quarterback. In coverage, Wilson was also a force to be reckoned with throughout his 13-year career. In 1966, Wilson snagged 10 interceptions for 180 return yards and two touchdowns.
Certainly, Wilson never dreamed of a Hall of Fame career, as a 1960 seventh round pick out of the University of Utah. In training camp, Wilson was a disaster on the offensive side of the ball and at cornerback. Larry Wilson, of course, impressed his coaches when he would crash down into the pocket on the safety blitz to take his shots. With the safety blitz, a star was born.
5. Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu is one of the most distinguished athletes to ever suit up and strap on a pair of shoulder pads. Contrary to his looks and soft-spoken demeanor, Troy Polamalu was a force. With a $1 million insurance policy on his flowing locks, Polamalu flew all over the field to run amok, rack up tackles, snatch interceptions, and inflict punishing hits.
As Superman, Polamalu was likely to go airborne at the line of scrimmage and drag down the opposing running back on fourth and inches. This former USC standout has mastered the art of the strip sack, where he times his blitz release perfectly, dips his shoulder past a lumbering tackle on the edge, and karate chops the football out of the quarterback’s hands from the blind side. Next, Polamalu is on the move for Steeler Nation, as he scoops the football off the grass and weaves in and out of traffic toward the end zone.
4. Ed Reed
On defense, Ed Reed was a playmaker that thought six on every possession. In Baltimore, Reed teamed up with Ray Lewis, the self-proclaimed God’s linebacker, to dominate the middle of the gridiron and win two Super Bowl titles. At free safety, Reed had mastered the art of the bait and switch to snag 64 interceptions during his 12-year career. In fact, Reed’s single-season interception totals have led the NFL on three separate occasions.
Vintage Reed hung back in the secondary after the snap, as if he were somewhat out of the action. At that point, the opposing quarterback would test Reed deep and let the ball fly on a post pattern. Immediately, Reed would be on the move to cover large tracts of turf and jump the route for a perfectly timed pick. From here, his Baltimore Ravens teammates would transition into offense — with Reed safely high-stepping behind a convoy of goons into the clear for six.
3. Paul Krause
Paul Krause served as the ultimate backstop for the 1970s Purple People Eaters at Minnesota. Nicknamed Centerfielder, Krause went on to snag 81 interceptions and break Emlen Tunnell’s longstanding record (79). Remarkably, the Centerfielder only missed two games over the course of his 16-year career.
As a Washington Redskins rookie, Krause battled his way into the starting lineup and made an immediate impact. During his first-year 1964 campaign, Paul Krause emerged as the NFL leader, with 12 interceptions. Although the Centerfielder took the League by storm in Washington, he was later traded to the Minnesota Vikings for a virtual pu pu platter of Marlin McKeever and one seventh round draft pick. Certainly, Krause was to have the last laugh, as he went on to appear in four Super Bowls and six Pro Bowls (8 total with Redskins and Vikings) at Minnesota.
2. Ken Houston
Ken Houston was the total package at safety. As a tackler, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Houston always dealt a stinging blow at the point of attack. In pass coverage, this ball hawk often appeared at the right time and at the right place, as he racked up 49 interceptions during his 14-year career with the Washington Redskins and Houston Oilers. Ken Houston simply had a nose for the ball — and the end zone.
Houston’s 1971 record of five touchdown returns (four interceptions and one touchdown) was to stand for 35 years, before the ridiculous Devin Hester was to take six kickoff and punt returns back to the house in 2006. As an all-around performer, Ken Houston was to close out his career having recovered 21 fumbles and scoring 12 touchdowns. Houston scored upon 9 interceptions, alongside one punt return, one fumble recovery, and one blocked field goal.
1. Ronnie Lott
Ronnie Lott was the greatest defensive back of all time. For the love of the game, Lott had the tip of his pinky finger amputated, so that he could make plays. Immediately after having the top of his finger sawed off, a reinvigorated Lott was right back out there to throttle people, rush the quarterback, and drop back into coverage to break up passes. On top of his toughness, Lott will always be celebrated for his otherworldly ability to anticipate, diagnose, and blow up offensive schemes through raw instinct.
At corner and both safety positions, Lott tallied 63 interceptions, 5 touchdowns, and 17 fumble recoveries for the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, and New York Jets. Lott, of course, will always be remembered as a San Francisco Treat — with four Super Bowl trophies to go alongside his highlight reel of vicious hits across the middle. Wide receivers often went full alligator-arm before entering Lott’s zone, only to still see stars as they got knocked into the end of next week. No. 42 brought the pain.